Lead singer Paul Meany details the four-year process behind MUTEMATH’s upcoming fourth album Vitals, continually chasing the euphoric feeling of finishing a record, why the band has come full circle creatively after 10 years yet still pushes forward, and how writing songs that embody a spirit of life has helped him navigate as he’s grown older.
Hey Paul, how are you doing today? It seems like you’re really busy these days.
I am busy. I’m in the principally unfun stuff. We’re getting ready to embark on this tour. I was just at the DMV. They called my number and I was renewing my license. I’m going through that time right now where you have to tie all the loose ends of your life together and update your insurances. Once tour starts, everything unravels, so I’m using this time to get tidied up.
But anyway, it’s all good, man. I’m excited about what’s around the corner right now.
So the last time I saw you guys was at Made in America last summer, which was almost exactly a year ago now. That was one of the first times you played “Monument” live, and I think at that point you had also debuted a couple other songs live, like “Used To” and “Stratosphere.” Have you been working on this album the whole time since then?
We have. Once we started playing these songs last year, we had the majority of what we believed was our album. We used the opportunity to play them live to try and chip away and develop it to expose the weaknesses. Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re locked up in the studio to revise. We produced this record ourselves and we were kind of left to our own devices, which was a lot of fun.
But yeah, whenever we get a chance to put some legs under these ideas in front of an audience, it’s amazing how the live A&R experience can help shape these things. We always would take whatever we learned from those shows and continued to chisel away at them throughout the rest of the year.
One of the things you said a while ago about making this record was you had written more songs for this one than your past three albums combined. What was that process like? How did you chip away and whittle it down to what ended up on the album?
We started writing in 2012, really going for it. We were trying out some of those ideas in 2013. We did an Australian tour where we tried out a lot of the ideas we had going. I remember Darren did a Guitar Center drumoff thing where we decided to try a lot of the ideas we were working on in an instrumental form. It all felt really good.
We finished out 2013 with a ton of ideas. I think when we listened to them, we had a sobering moment at the end of that year. We had just come back from our first trip to India. It was a very euphoric experience. We kind of cleared our heads, came back, listened to what we had, and we had that sinking feeling of like, gosh, this just isn’t it. This isn’t the record we want.
That was a tough call. I remember our New Year’s resolution going into 2014 was we were going to write a song every day until we feel we got it, got what this album needs to say and what we feel it should represent about where we’re at right now. And that’s what we did.
Starting January 1, 2014, we went on a songwriting marathon. That whole month was a good time, and we wound up doing the majority of what became Vitals. That’s when “Monument” was written. It was written the second week of that month. We did “Stratosphere,” a few of the other ones, “Joy Rides.” Some important songs came to be, which really helped shape the album we were envisioning when we started. So, it took some time.
The effect of all that was we had a lot of ideas lying around on the shelf. We just had to go for quantity and write a lot to find the right ones. It was a new approach for us.
With the last few records, and this one too, it seems like it takes you a long time to make a record. On the flipside though, it’s something I really respect, because you take making an album very seriously. Is that something you’re just perfectionists about, where you have to get everything exactly right to how you like it? Do you have a difficulty coming to consensus? What is that like?
Well, I hear of this condition called demoitis. There’s some artists, and I know them well, and the way they work is the first thing you create is the best thing. You leave it alone at its most pure. I just creatively don’t tick that way. I’m the opposite of demoitis. I don’t have demoitis. I have chronic revisionism. It’s hard for me to know when to stop. I keep chiseling and chiseling, feeling like it can be better.
Me and Darren are both kind of that way. We’re just go, go, go, and it can start to get worse after a while. To balance that, Roy and Todd help us know when we’re going too far. They’re able to let go of the leash a little bit. They’re like, “No, OK, that’s good. Let them run their process.” Some things are going to get better and some things are going to get worse.
That’s part of the fun of it for us. Sorting through all the puzzle pieces in the end, once we make this glorified mess, is something that we really enjoy. It’s how we’ve always created in this band. That euphoric feeling that you get at the very end, when you listen to something that you’ve labored over and you can take that sigh of relief like, yeah, there it is – that becomes very addictive. That’s what we do on every album. We work towards that moment.
As you mentioned, you self-produced this record again, which you did on Odd Soul as well. But this time, you had no label and no manger at the same time. How did you like being completely untethered like that? Do you think it added an extra layer of pressure, or was it more freeing?
There certainly was a lot of freedom that came with that. In all fairness, this record did start on a label, that process. I think that was part of the baggage that was going on in 2012 and 2013 with what we were creating. As we began to see the fork in the road with our label and our manager, it just felt like that wasn’t going to go any further.
We wanted to create in that new headspace, which was also a part of that New Year’s resolution of doing a song every day. We needed to give ourselves a chance to create in this new spirit that is now in our band, and I’m glad we did because it really became the right record for now. We kind of shed the baggage of what was being accumulated from that old chapter and really allowed ourselves to step into this new place fully. Overall, it was very freeing.
This record, compared to Odd Soul, is almost a complete 180 stylistically from it. Odd Soul was very guitar-driven, with this old school, bluesy rock sound, while Vitals is very synth and electronic-driven. How were you able to transition between those two extremes?
Odd Soul, admittedly, is a bit of an anomaly in comparison to the other records that we’ve done. It was where we were creatively. We felt like we had to do that. It was conceptual. We wanted to say a certain thing. We wanted to dress it up a certain way, and we had a lot of fun with that. It was a very exciting creative process for us, doing that record.
I think as we went into this, yeah, we wondered should we continue down that vein where we were going with on Odd Soul? We wrote a lot of songs that did connect that way. Those just didn’t happen to be the ideas that were moving us.
You know, there’s a couple songs on this that do connect to Odd Soul. There’s tracks like “All or Nothing” and “Equals,” which were a bit of the fringe tracks on Odd Soul that I felt were more of the bridge that we worked off of going into this record. I feel like even a song like “Used To” is still connected to the spirit of a lot of what was going on in Odd Soul.
This record was really trying to find a way to look at all the songs we’ve written, all the records we have done, and find a way to internally pay homage to all of that. We’re acknowledging all of it and embracing it, and then finding a way to push it forward for ourselves.
This record as a whole is probably more connected to some of our earlier work. It was important for us to find that new space of acreage that you can move into creatively on every record, and not just repeat the same thing.
One thing I think people will also be quick to notice is that Darren’s drumming is a lot less crazy on this record than it has been on previous records. He kind of embraces more of his programming side that he likes to do. What was it like to work on that end and do something different there?
Yeah, I think that was part of us challenging ourselves, actually. Disciplining parts in the recording process was not a method that we would employ a lot. It was a lot of just go, go, go. How many fills can you do in a song? Odd Soul was definitely that. We went in with a mindset on Odd Soul of just press record, play it all, and we’re going to find a spot for it. And it was really fun to do that.
This record didn’t feel like that was a challenge to do anymore. The challenge for this record was how few notes could we get away with? We would overplay all the time, recording this record, but then it was a process of trying to now skim it back. What are the essential parts of the song? We were trying to see how loud we could let simplicity happen for each song idea.
That’s not to say there’s not moments on this album where Darren is definitely Darren, doing his thing, but by no means is it a 50-minute drum solo. That’s what our shows are for. We do a vast amount of overplaying at our shows. But for the recording medium, the challenge for this record was trying to find more simplicity. Darren’s a little more machine than animal this go-around.
Speaking of the shows, you’re getting ready to go out on this headlining tour soon. As you’ve been rehearsing these new songs, how have they changed when you’ve tried them out in the live setting?
That’s the thing I enjoy the most about this band. Whatever we record, we just look at it as a bank of ideas. It’s all starting places to launch into something new. We have basic chord melodies, and grooves and tempos and lyrics, and the live setting is a chance to get to reimagine it and try and push it.
We still try to stay true to the spirit of the song. We’re not creating jazz odyssey versions of what we’re doing. You just want to dive deeper into the spirit of whatever is embodying that song. This band goes there, and we have a lot of fun doing it. That’s what makes putting these shows together really exciting for us.
This is the first record you’ve done with Todd being an official member and writing with the band. What was it like having him in the mix with you in there?
It was great. He brings a fantastic energy. He’s a well-rounded musician. Our approach on this record was not, “All right, you do guitar. You do bass. You do drums.” It was, “OK, today we’re doing drums. Today we’re doing synths.” All four of us, speaking into whatever the part was, were trying to find the best part.
Maybe it’s a part that I start and play, and then Todd hears it and is like, “What if we added this bit to it?” And then Roy refines it. It was like tag teaming everything. It wasn’t just guys sticking to their instrument. It’s a bit of how we’ve always worked, but Todd especially, being a multi-instrumentalist.
It’s not like anyone having to play that part is sacred. It’s whoever executes it and whoever can help refine it. Quite honestly, Roy did most, if not all, of the guitars on this record. Todd became more of a synth player on this record, and it was a bit of a new chemistry for us that we really found a lot of inspiration in. Shaking the Etch A Sketch of roles and who’s got to do what was a big part of how this record came out.
“Monument” is the first song you’ve officially released, and as you said was one of the songs that was key for when the album started to take shape. What is it about that song that really sparked something and helped the album come together?
This whole album as a concept has been about confronting endings and what it means to face some sort of death, whether it’s literal or figurative. How do you respond to that? How do you respond to an ending and try to find a way to continue? How do you boil down the ingredients of your life to the most essential things? Where do you derive happiness from? How do you continue on? That’s always been a mantra to a lot of our songs over the years.
I think especially at this point in our lives, as we’re now in our upper 30s, facing good old cliché midlife crisis stuff, this stuff really echoes a lot harder. “Monument” was a great synopsis of that spirit. We didn’t want to write a dire-sounding record. It was important for us to make songs that had this spirit of life because that’s really the point. It’s finding life in all of this.
“Monument” was one of those songs that began to say it right for us. Some of the earlier things we were writing in 2012, the overall effect of listening to it felt depressing to us. We didn’t want to be in that headspace. “Monument” was one of the first ones to open the door to what we really wanted to uncover for the whole album.
One of the things I took away from the record is it seems to be as a whole, like you were saying, to be your most inspirational record with the lyrics, which is summed up beautifully on the last track, “Remain.” Is that what you were feeling when you were writing and working on it?
Absolutely, yeah. All those songs connect from that same place. I think a MUTEMATH album, one we always try to aspire to, is some kind of picture of something dark, but it’s important for us to frame it in light. When we do that effectively, that’s usually the spirit of what we think is a good MUTEMATH song. I think “Remain” is a great example.
When we finished “Remain,” we were like, “Gosh, man. This seems like the lost track from our first album when we started our band and were trying to really set out to do in the beginning.” We’re really proud of how it came out.
In a lot of ways, it’s great for us to come full circle, which I think we needed to do after being a band for 10 years and going on a few rants and raves creatively, and be able to end with a track like “Remain,” which kind of completes the picture for us.
On the last record, Odd Soul, it was a bit more collaborative on the lyrics than it had been on the other records. I know Darren helped out on some of the songs and stuff. Was it like that on this record or did you do most of the writing?
I was left to my own devices on the lyrics on this one. I think Odd Soul, because of what we set out to conceptually do, which was tell our stories of how we grew up in church – me and Darren certainly had a lot of shared experiences. We both had the avenue to dive into the lyrics together and make this sort of autobiography of a record.
For this one, it was a different approach, which was kind of getting back to true form in the lyrics. They just let me be, and soul search and do battle with the words. So it was a little different this time.
Another song I wanted to ask about is “Composed,” which it was saying in the album notes is about a night when you had a panic attack while you were at home. Can you talk a little about what inspired that song?
Well, it was exactly that. I’ve always had anxiety issues since probably my mid-20s. It’s nothing I’m particularly proud of when it happens. It’s certainly very humbling and embarrassing in a lot of situations. It had never hit me in the middle of the night. This is the first time it hit me.
In these past four years, I’ve become a father now. There’s been a bit of a transition in life for me. It’s amazing, of course, as anyone who has a kid understands, but it comes with a certain set of weights that you don’t quite plan for as well. This one particular night it just kind of hit. I was properly freaked, angry with myself and not really sure how to process it all.
I began to cope in the only way I know how, trying to turn something into a song. I kind of wonder if that’s becoming a crutch for me in a weird way. It’s not a healthy outlet. I’m not really sure, because it’s been a convenient escape for me my whole life. Confronting a problem, it’s like, well, just go write a song. Turn it into music and that will fix it.
I got a feeling that’s going to begin to unravel for me in some kind of weird way [laughs]. This is the preanxiety that I’m showcasing for you right now. I’ll probably freak out again in a couple years about this, but for now “Composed” wound up becoming a very personal song for me. I’m really proud of how it came out. That was something that was written really fast, and that’s actually one we did not do much to from the first demo. We did not over revise that one. It’s pretty much how it started.
So yeah, I think that’s one of the darker confrontations I probably had on this record. But again, it was still important for me to find life in that situation, find a way to cope and to begin to genuinely believe that tomorrow is still going to be better than today. The best is not behind you. There’s still great things to have happen. That’s a tricky mind game that you learn to navigate the older you get in confronting these days, but it’s important. It’s essential to happiness and trying to figure it out.
Even though, as you were saying, you’ve always turned to music as your crutch to work things out, have you at least been able to see your writing change throughout the years from when you started out?
That’s hard to say. Pre-MUTEMATH, of course, but MUTEMATH was a very specific creative exercise that I set out when I started with Darren in the beginning to write songs from a certain perspective. As I’ve been listening to a lot of earlier songs for preparing the shows now, we’re going through all the songs that we’ve written in trying to craft the new show, I can honestly say there’s still a lot of old songs I’m really genuinely proud of. I’m proud of how they came out, how it was articulated.
I’m not sure I’m writing any better, you know. I’d like to think I am. You just hope that you can continue to find that moment every now and then when you’re writing a song that will tap into something that will rebound for years to come. I think we have a few of those types of songs on this album, which I’m really proud about. I think we’ve had a few of those on every album.
It’s in large part to the type of process we implement, giving it some time and trying not to rush an idea, and shooting for that feeling of euphoria that I was explaining before when you know you’ve completed a record. We work hard on the songs and trying to get them right.
So to answer your question, I’m not sure I’m better than before as a writer, but I certainly shoot for that every time at it.
Since this record is a bit of a new style for you, as we’ve been talking about, how did you then approach that vocally? It seems you were able to stretch yourself out a little bit on something like “All I See” that maybe you hadn’t necessarily been able to do in the past.
I have to correct you there. I feel like a lot of these songs are more of a return to form. There’s songs on the first record that I feel like a lot of these new songs are connected to in a certain way. I think because we’re so far removed from it, it might feel like we’re doing something completely new.
I feel like it’s pretty connected to the approach vocally, even instrumentation-wise, that we were using on the first album. I think we’re finding a new place to push a little further. I don’t see “All I See” that far removed from a song like “You Are Mine” or “Stall Out.” I think there’s a bit of just doing what we do. It was nice to find a breath of fresh air within that. It didn’t feel like we were just throwing in the same ol’ same ol’.
I’ve always loved your instrumental tracks throughout the years, obviously starting with “Reset.” You have two on this record, the title track and “Bulletproof.” What was it like coming up with those and doing two this time?
It’s something I really enjoy about this band. I enjoy those moments live, and I certainly enjoy the process of creating those when we’re in the studio. Some you don’t realize they’re instrumentals at first. Usually every idea that comes up we try and throw a vocal on it to make sure there’s not a song that’s supposed to happen.
The track “Vitals,” though, was one we immediately knew, oh, that’s an instrumental. It has this sort of background vocal chant thing that happens, but there was a certain thing about it that we knew that was going to be the title track and that was going to be an instrumental.
“Bulletproof,” that went through a lot of revisions before it became an instrumental. We just didn’t like the vocal [laughs]. I kept screwing it up. I had to admit to myself and man up, just mute the vocal, and dress up the music a little more and go, “That’s how it’s supposed to be.” I’m glad we did that. It’s certainly a better-composed piece of music now as an instrumental.
I enjoy that about this band. I hope we always allow ourselves the option of doing that, of muting the vocal if it serves the song better. A lot of times you’re trying to create a song to support the vocal. Sometimes you got to just mute the vocal.
Another thing I’ve always loved is your videos, and I was curious if you have been working on a video for “Monument.”
We have. We’re in that fun stage where you’re just shooting what ifs at each other. What if we do this? What if we do that? Most of them are horrible ideas, but it’s all fun and you just work off of it.
I can’t say we have the idea for the music video yet, but we’re in the process of figuring that out. I think that’s another fun part about being in this band. And thank you for that. I’m glad you enjoy the videos. We certainly enjoy making them.
Closing things out here, I know for the past week or so Hurricane Katrina has been in the news a lot with its 10th anniversary. Being that you are from New Orleans and that city is such a huge part of who the band is, what do you remember about that time period? Were you in the area when it hit?
Yeah. I remember I was in Nashville recording the first album. My wife, and at that time my five dogs, were here. We were thinking, “Ah, you can just ride out the storm. It’s probably not a big deal.” I remember right before I went to sleep the night before Katrina came. I was in Nashville. I saw the news, and it freaked me out. They were like, “This is a Category 5. It’s going to be a historic storm.”
I had this sinking feeling. It was like three in the morning, and I remember booking the last flight out of Nashville to New Orleans to get in. I helped my wife board up the house. I got a rent-a-car. We threw all the dogs in the rent-a-car and drove up to Nashville. We were one of the last cars out of New Orleans to get to Nashville, and I’m so glad we did.
For the people who stayed in our neighborhood, it was horrific. With my anxiety issues, gosh. Not being able to be in touch with my wife or know what was going on for weeks – a lot of people dealt with that. It was good that we got out of there. We didn’t try to weather that one out, but it devastated family and friends. The list goes on. I don’t need to go into it. Everyone knows what happened.
Looking at the scene now, 10 years later, it’s astonishing. The city is almost unrecognizable. You wouldn’t have thought such a tragedy had happened 10 years ago. It’s been rebuilt wonderfully. The real estate is freaking skyrocketing down here. The city’s great and coming back. So yeah, I’m really proud of what’s happened in New Orleans with the recovery process.
Our experience of it was by far not the worst. We weren’t in the thick of it. We were evacuated, and that was right when we started the band. I remember we jumped right on tour. We finished the record and started touring at the end of ’05 and through all of ’06. We didn’t really come back to New Orleans again until we started recording in ’08.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk